BABY ON BOARD: How do professional musicians with kids make it work?
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Michael Raine
If you have a child, or especially more than one, you’ve had this realization: you had no concept of how free, flexible, and relaxed your life actually was. Yes, kids bring an oddly-indescribable type of happiness into your life, but that is mixed with thoughts of, “Can we afford a kid?” and “What does this mean for my career?” It’s all part of that constant mental conversation we have with ourselves. It doesn’t really matter who you are; children add a literal lifetime of unpredictability into the mix – and this is true whether you’re a banker or a builder.
But let’s be real. Some jobs are easier to balance with parenthood than others. Adding the unpredictability of parenthood to a professional musician’s already unpredictable work life makes for one hell of a balancing act – but one people have been ably performing for decades.
There’s rarely a “perfect time” for a baby
When you’re expecting a child, or even discussing the prospect, a commonly-shared bit of wisdom is that, for most people, there is no such thing as the perfect time. Whether it feels like your career is going up, down, or sideways, there is always a reason to think that later would be better. What you’re often told is some version of, “If you have a kid, you’ll figure it out one way or another.” And like so many of those parenting clichés, well, it’s mostly true.
“The band was literally taking off. All these doors were opening and everything was happening; all this great stuff was coming our way, and we were travelling and having this intense, intense point in our career. That’s when I found out I was pregnant,” recalls Walk Off the Earth’s Sarah Blackwood about her first pregnancy in 2012. She and her partner/bandmate, Gianni Nicassio, now have three sons: Giorgio (seven), Luigi (five), and Romeo (three). “I actually knew I was pregnant while we were on tour and I was like, ‘I’m not going to do a pregnancy test until I get home because a tour is already so exhausting. It was like, ‘I cannot know that on top of this right now!’”
For Jarrel Young – a chart-topping DJ, producer, singer, and songwriter who just launched a solo career under the moniker Jarrel The Young – his three-year-old daughter arrived at a turbulent time in his career. He and his creative partner in the duo Young Wolf Hatchlings were signed to a major label, had recently won an ASCAP Pop Award for the Fall Out Boy track “Uma Thurman,” and had worked with a number of other high-profile artists. But Young could feel their group’s momentum was waning and that was exposing simmering problems between them and with their business team.
“For me, it was a very high-stress time. But at the same time, I didn’t know where I was going to go. I was still signed and things were relatively positive and I had some type of trajectory…. But in retrospect, I could see that things were crumbling,” he shares. “Obviously, I think the main thing for anybody who travels like I do is just being around. You want to be present for everything. Luckily, as I was saying, things were slowing down, so it never really came to it, but I think my biggest concern was not being there and not being able to support my family the way I needed to. I think a lot of that was me compensating for not necessarily having a lot of other things figured out. I didn’t know where the next set of money was coming from and I didn’t know what the next steps would be, concretely, but I really wanted to make sure that I was going to be there emotionally and support-wise for my family.”
For Kelly Bado – an acclaimed Manitoba-based singer-songwriter who was named Francophone Artist of the Year at the 2020 Western Canadian Music Awards – she and her husband found out they were expecting their son, who’s now one, just before Bado was about to begin a year of recording and promoting her debut LP. At the time, she had just received a grant to make the album and didn’t know what to do.
“I got the grant and I got pregnant and, you know, it’s hard to get grants sometimes, especially at a level where it’s going to be my first full album. So, I felt like, ‘If I say I’m taking a year off, then I’m losing the opportunity; what am I going to present for people next year to give me the grant?’ Like, I am going to be off the radar and all that. I felt I had no choice but to find a way to continue the music with the baby, so then my fear was, am I going to get hired once people know I’m pregnant? Once they know I have a baby, is that going to require that they give me extra because I need care for the baby? How am I going to manage?” she reveals.
Learning the balancing act
“They were kind of like, ‘OK. Shit. What are we going to do? What are you going to need? Can you play shows? What are the cut-off dates and what are the times when you’re not going to be around?’ and all that,” Blackwood recalls about bringing the news of her first pregnancy to the rest of the band and Walk Off the Earth’s management, agent, and label.
Blackwood found out she was pregnant soon after WOTE’s cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know” went viral and they dropped their first original single, the double-platinum-selling “Red Hands.” Given that, there were a lot of shows and other promotional commitments in the works, including shows planned for right around her due date.
“They were like, ‘Well, what if we found someone to replace you for a few months until you come back?’ I know how important it is to be the face of something or to maintain that and I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? No. Who are you going to replace me with? Beyoncé? Who are you going to get that is going to work an audience the way that I can? That is an insanely stupid idea and will hurt the band,’” she recalls, laughing about it now, but no less sincere in her conviction. “Our fans want to know who we are. They don’t want to see a replacement. They’d probably rather wait a month and come see us when I can be there. So, we obviously steered away from that [laughs]. I just said, ‘Look, I am going to need a little bit of time, probably around three weeks to a month depending on what kind of birth I have. I’ve done the research and asked a ton of questions and I know I can bring a baby on tour with me.”
And so they did. Walk Off the Earth have toured regularly with Blackwood and Nicassio’s kids in tow. When their second and third sons were added to the entourage, Blackwood says it was, well, “easier” isn’t the right word, but at least more routine. “After the first [child], though, that was the biggest adjustment because that’s when your life takes a huge 180. I think it was the hardest at that point,” says Blackwood. “Like, when we would go on tour or when we would have to go to work, everybody still got to do their regular schedule and get their regular sleep, but my sleep was taken out. Honestly, it’s the sleep thing. Lack of sleep is the hardest thing to deal with.”
Nonetheless, Blackwood acknowledges that WOTE are lucky to have the resources at their disposal to make touring with children doable, such as having a nanny on tour and a second tour bus for the family. She often thinks about what would’ve happened if she had gotten pregnant earlier. “Gianni and I both played in bands before WOTE, and even WOTE’s early years were all about touring in a van and sleeping on people’s floors and playing shows for seven people. You know, just the grind of the road and I think, absolutely, if we were at that point and I had gotten pregnant, there is no way I would’ve been able to do tours.”
It being early in her professional career, Bado did not have the luxury of a travelling nanny or private tour bus. For her, the first six months of her son’s life were a major adjustment. She took off the first few months after giving birth, but then jumped right back into recording and performing.
“There already were opportunities for me to showcase and there were showcases happening that I really didn’t want to miss,” she says. “Definitely it was hard when I was travelling with him before COVID. It was an adjustment. The hard part is that I was alone. I had to carry the baby all through the airport, I had to find his things, I had to feed him, and then I had to go perform and then talk to the musicians, etc. It was a lot because my husband couldn’t come with me, nobody could come with me, it was just me.”
At that time, organizations like FACTOR and Musicaction did not include childcare as an eligible allocation for grant money. Such grants could be used to pay touring musicians or sound technicians, but not someone to look after your kid while you’re at soundcheck. So, while Bado was lucky to get grants to help her attend showcases in Montreal, Ottawa, and New Orleans, she was on her own for childcare, which was a strain. Thankfully, beginning in 2020, those organizations now include childcare as a touring expense that the grant can be used to pay for.
“I felt really exhausted after the few showcases I had. I was too exhausted. Like I said, just having to carry him alone and no grants to pay for help, and all the physical effort that this required and the fact that he was crying because he felt like he was not home, it was hard on me. So, I really wasn’t helping my case either way,” Bado says she realized in retrospect. “I feel like if I had taken that year – and it sucks that it took COVID for us to realize this – but I would’ve had the year to take care of myself, take care of the baby, spend beautiful time together, and take my time to prepare grants and an album. Nothing would be rushed. I really felt like I was rushing because I was expecting and things had to be done before the baby comes.”
The efficient use of his creative time is the big lesson Young learned in the first year of his daughter’s life. For years, he was a studio rat, spending all night tinkering away on a track until it fell into place. It was an approach that worked for many years because he had the luxury of time, but time is a not a luxury parents have. As such, he’s learned to do a lot more prep work before going into the studio to maximize that time.
“In the beginning it affected my creativity a lot because I almost didn’t know how to be efficient. Part of being a professional songwriter is being proficient and being professional. Those are great things, but a lot of music-making for me came from playing in the sandbox. Like, I was confident I would get it at some point between now and tomorrow if I’m in the studio for 20 hours, you know what I mean? I wasn’t as confident in, ‘I’m going to get it in six hours.’ So, I struggled a little in the beginning to be proficient in shorter periods of time and then being able to turn that creativity on and off,” he reveals.
It was the same experience for Blackwood and Nicassio, who would often pull all-nighters in the studio or work 18-hour days to shoot and produce a video in their childless years.
“Obviously, once I got pregnant, that started to change – even just naturally because my body was like, ‘You can’t do this; you need to get on a better schedule,’” she says. These days, they set stricter parameters on their schedule, and it’s about “meeting in the middle with what our management and team is expecting or hoping we’ll do and what we actually are comfortable with doing.”
Young says the turning point for him, in terms of finding a healthier work-life balance, came when his daughter was about a year-and-a-half old. With a family vacation approaching, he’d been working non-stop to finish a Young Wolf Hatchlings album as well as one he was producing for R&B artist Zolo. The albums got done, but it left him burnt out.
“I had a nice balance going on when I was a free dude, but when you add the weight of a child on top of that, things shift and I got really unhappy and really unsatisfied and stressed out. That is when I realized I needed to change,” he says. “To be honest, I wish I could tell you I came back from that trip and was in a perfect flow, but I’m still learning to be a better dad and a better professional every day. It’s a process and a commitment.”
“I think one of the challenges I was having as a father and husband is, when I was coming home from any tours, it was adjusting back to family life. I was finding it really, really hard adjusting back. Because when you’re out travelling, you’re alone and just responsible for yourself. You have a busy schedule and are doing stuff, but it was adjusting back to home life and making meals for the kids and getting them up for school and helping them with homework. Those things were really challenging for me initially,” says Adrian Sutherland of the band Midnight Shine.
In a number of ways, Sutherland’s experience balancing a music career and family life is very different than most. For one, he lives in the fly-in Cree community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario, which means travelling takes on a whole other level of hassle and expense. But importantly, Sutherland and his wife already had three kids – and a fourth came shortly thereafter – in 2009 when he decided to pursue music. His wife, Judy, was supportive, but also understandably worried about him leaving a well-paying (albeit time-consuming and stressful) career for the financial instability of a music career.
“It’s always been a tough conversation, to be honest. As parents, your biggest priority, first and foremost, is always the kids, and a lot of times parents end up sacrificing things that they love to do and dreams that they may have. I think if anyone sacrificed a lot, I would say it’s my wife – especially being committed and allowing me to pursue this music career and the support I’ve had from her has just been amazing. But those conversations have always been difficult ones. You know, I think for a while it was difficult for her to understand because there was really no monetary value in what I was doing for a long time,” Sutherland shares. He also concedes that had his kids been younger, rather than in their adolescent and teen years when he took on music full-time, he may have never made the jump. “I think it would’ve been a lot more difficult and probably put a lot more strain on my relationship. I don’t want to say it would’ve been impossible, but certainly a lot more difficult.”
Seeking out advice
As a parent, there’s no shortage of advice you’re given, often unsolicited. Some of it you take to heart, some of it you disregard, and some of it you disregard before realizing you should’ve taken it to heart.
“I thought, ‘What about women who are artists?’ So, I talked to some friends and there were some hard stories that I heard, like: ‘I had my baby and was separated at the time and had to take him to the bars and perform.’ Other nice stories were more where it’s a couple but they’re both singers. That was the best scenario because they’re both traveling with the kid and they would both go all the way together,” recalls Bado. “So, my fear was how I would manage with the baby because as the mother, I am going to have to take the baby with me. Am I going to take a sabbatical year and just not do anything?”
In retrospect, that’s sort of what she wishes she’d done – and would suggest to others. Nonetheless, she accepted the grants from Musiaction and Manitoba Film and Music and got the album done. That debut LP will be out Oct. 30th.
“I would recommend that people enjoy their pregnancy and the first months with the baby until they feel like they’re ready to go about it, and take that time to do the administrative part. You could work on your social media presence and website, write music, and all these things that are part of the job,” she says. “I don’t know why I felt like I needed to get the project done. In my head, it was a must at that time. [But] it’s okay now; I’ve done it and I’m proud of it and just trying to get things out.”
Young has a similar perspective. Like he said earlier, it took a couple years for him to learn it the tough way, so if there’s one thing he would tell other artists expecting a baby, it’s to prioritize time with your family. “Family is number one and there’s no restart on that, so focus on what you got to do to take care of your family so that there’s no regrets moving forward.”
Sutherland seconds what Young says. Part of what he has loved about being a musician versus a corporate professional is that when he is home, he really gets to focus on his family.
“I try to just focus on being a father and husband when I am home. I have a certain amount of time during the day to spend on music and work stuff and having that understanding goes a long way. They support that and understand that and I appreciate them allowing me to do that. Then, any other part of the day, I’m there for them 100%.”
“The second secret is what I call my village; my support system,” adds Young, noting his mother and mother-in-law both live nearby and provide a lot of help. “Another thing is just planning. At the end of the day, it is stressful and you are asking a lot of your partner or community or whatever it is, but in some situations, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Figure out a way to prep meals, for example, and make things easier for your partner. Like, we were doing little frozen meals or things like that help make the process easier along the way and that helps. But I don’t know how people do it without a big support system.”
Blackwood seconds that notion. Especially on tour, she stresses the need for help, and sometimes that means paying someone. (For risk of being repetitive, it’s worth saying again that FACTOR and other such grants are now making childcare an eligible expense.) “Find those people in your life who are really going to help you, and if you need to go on tour and you have a baby, hire good help. Don’t hire a friend because your friend is not going to do the job. You need to hire someone who is a professional at babies,” she laughs.
As we end our conversation, I ask Blackwood if there’s anything else on this topic of balancing parenthood and a music career that she wants to add before we hang up the phone. It’s the kind of open-ended question I often toss off at the end of such interviews, and usually, it doesn’t solicit much. But this time, Blackwood left me with maybe the most important message of all, especially for other moms:
“Everyone’s story is going to be a little bit different, and sometimes it’s possible and sometimes it’s not and that is okay. Sometimes you can make it work and sometimes you can’t. But, I think everybody deserves the inspiration to know that life as you know it – career, passion, whatever it is that you’re doing – it doesn’t have to end when you find out that you’re pregnant. It is going to change, for sure, by 180 degrees, and it’s probably going to be really tiring for a while, but things get easier,” she says. “So, I would just say: don’t lose yourself. There is nothing sadder to me than when someone has to give up everything. Some people are born to be mothers and are like, ‘I just wanted to be a mom my whole life’ and as soon as they have kids, they’re like, ‘This is it; this is my retirement and I’m in my happy place.’ This is great. But for people like me, I need to be creating and making music and I need to be doing something that feeds my soul in that other way. So, do not feel guilty about that because it’s so fucking normal.”